Definition of Compassion

What is compassion?

The origin of the word compassion comes from the latin compati, which means to ‘suffer with’. But one of the difficulties about compassion is that there are many different definitions of compassion and ways of understanding it. In fact, although people often have an automatic appreciation, there are different ideas when it comes to answering the question “what is compassion?’

For example, some people describe compassion as a feeling or emotion (like warmth or love), or say that it’s the same as empathy. But from a Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) point of view, it’s difficult to root compassion in an emotion as there can be very different emotions that go with and alongside compassion. 


Definition of Compassion

For example, sometimes when we’re compassionate to someone, we can feel a great sense of love, affection or kindness. Other times, our compassion to others can come laced with sadness, grief or anxiety. So it’s hard to locate compassion as an emotion, because it often draws from or becomes textured with a variety of emotions or feelings. 

Similarly, it’s tricky to reduce compassion to the same thing as empathy. From a CFT point of view, empathy is a competency, and can be used from different motives to understand something about the mind of another. But whether this knowledge is in the context of caring – or competition or something else – can make a big difference to how that knowledge is used. 

Compassion Focused Therapy - Understanding Compassion and Self-Compassion

In CFT, we see compassion as being linked to a motive, and from here, a very clear definition of compassion emerges:

                                          a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others, with a commitment to relive and prevent it

It can sometimes be helpful to have a printed version of this definition of compassion (see here, and below) as we can use this to discuss with people about how this definition holds two different psychologies of compassion

  1. Engagement with distress and suffering. This involves qualities that allow us to notice, engage with, tolerate and understand suffering and distress, whether that’s in ourselves or someone else
  2. Taking wise action with distress and suffering. This part of compassion involves learning how to work with distress – whether our own or someone else’s – in wise ways 

It’s key in Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) to hold in mind how able the person that we’re working with (or anyone for that matter) are able to connect with these two parts of compassion. Sometimes, we can do the first step – engaging with distress, but struggle to find ways to wisely alleviate suffering (Step 2). But for others, there might be more capacity to do Step 2, but they don’t get there because they don’t notice their distress, or (for example) find it hard to tolerate it when they make contact with it.

Central within this definition is not only that compassion requires a motive to be caring, but that because it involves connecting with distress and suffering, it often also needs distress tolerance and courage. But more than this, we also need our compassion to be wise – that we’re able to take wise action in trying to relieve distress, whether our own, or someone else’s. 

Whatever our ability to connect with the two parts of compassion, it’s important within CFT to find ways to help people strengthen in both of these areas. And just to make things more interesting, for each part of definition of compassion, there are six competencies or skills that give rise to them. 

For the first psychology, these are: (i) care for wellbeing, (ii) sensitivity to suffering, (iii) sympathy, (iv) distress tolerance, (v) empathy and (vi) non-judgement

For the second psychology, these are: (i) attention, (ii) thinking/reasoning, (iii) imagery, (iv) behaviour, (v) emotion and (vi) body/sensory focus


If you’re interested in learning more about compassion, and self-compassion in particular, can help you, check our our compassion self-help and resources

And if you’d like to find out more about how the two parts to compassion each contain 6 different competencies or skills, then click here for the compassion circles 

Defining Compassion in CFT - Two Psychologies

If you’re interested in learning more about the definition of compassion, here’s a great video from Dr Stan Steindl 

These handouts have all been adapted from the wonderful work of Paul Gilbert